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What New Grads Need to Know About Working Remotely

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What started out for many of us as a quick trip to the supermarket to stock up on toilet paper and a few boxes of mac and cheese for a two-week lockdown, has evolved into a multi-year reinvention of how we work. Many offices closed their doors, and we worked from our couches, beds, and kitchen tables — leaving behind office plants, microwaveable lunches, and the sweaters we had draped over our chairs.

Today, WFH is here to stay, at least in some capacity, for 45% of the workforce. Even so, many workplaces are still struggling to define their expectations when it comes to flexibility around where and when people work. It’s likely going to be a long ride before we feel a sense of stability.

It’s especially hard for people entering the workforce during this corporate identity crisis. As a new grad, you have a lot on your mind: how to land a job, build relationships, figure out cultural norms, fight imposter syndrome, and demonstrate the awesomeness that got you hired. You do, however, have one big advantage: a fresh perspective and very few biases towards the pre-pandemic way of working. Compared to everyone else, you are more equipped to adapt to whatever the future brings.

In my experience coaching individuals and teams through the ups and downs of the shift into remote and hybrid work, there are some concrete things you can do to prepare yourself to thrive in the workplace — no matter what state of transition it is in.

Here are three tips to help early career professionals prepare for the future and thrive in their new roles.

Lower your communication defenses.

How many times have you written the perfect email, added all of the context and thoughtful questions… only to be met with the reply, “K.”

Just me?

When you are new to the workforce, finding the right balance between being your authentic self and fitting into the culture of your company can take some adjustment. Before you let the single-word response ruin your day, or send you into a spiral about how your boss hates you, remember, digital communication is interpreted differently by different generations. In Digital Body LanguageErica Dhawan artfully walks through the differences between digital and analog communication, and how to set ourselves up for success in the digital world. The biggest takeaway: Everyone needs to slow down — both in how we fire off quick responses without fully reading the contents of an email or message, but also in how we react and make assumptions about someone’s intent.

We are all overloaded with email these days, and more often than not, a short message from your boss is their way of giving you a quick “thumbs up” before moving to their next task — not them trying to send you a secret thumbs down about your worth as an employee. When you find yourself spiraling, reframe the focus from yourself to them. A dead giveaway that you’re in a negativity spiral is when you ask yourself questions centered on me: Why is my boss doing this to me?; Why does my boss hate me?; Why is my boss singling me out? You get the idea.

Instead, ask: What might be going on with them? When you shift your focus outward, you depersonalize the situation and build empathy by considering someone else’s experience and perspective. Remember what’s happening in their life probably has nothing to do with you.

Pro tip

If you keep getting your digital wires crossed, it might be worth having a conversation with your manager about establishing some lightweight communication norms on your team. This could include setting some guidelines about what kinds of communication makes sense over chat vs. email vs. video conference, or discussing how to best share your ideas when there is limited face time.

In these conversations, I’ve found it useful to frame my question in terms of efficiency, and then ask the other person for their preference. For example, you could say, “I want to make sure I’m communicating in a way that gets you what you need in order to make a decision. Is it more helpful for me to summarize my questions so that you can read them quickly, or do you prefer if I provide you with more context upfront?”

Preset and reset your boundaries.

We all learned how invisible the elusive work/life boundary is once the pandemic hit. In the words of a viral Tweet from March 2020: ”You are not working from home; you are at your home during a crisis trying to work.” As we enter whatever this next phase ends up looking like, it’s important we think about our boundaries before they get stepped on.

If you’re just starting out in a role, it can be tempting to want to dive right in and set boundaries later, but once the boundary is gone, it’s like climbing Mt. Everest to get it back. This doesn’t mean you can’t crush it in a new role, it just means you need to be careful not to set an unsustainable expectation around your working hours or output.

Establishing balance might look like setting working hours in your calendar, having a conversation with your manager about schedule and downtime, pre-planning vacations or getaways so you have something to look forward to, and even, dare I say… removing work email from your personal phone!

I suggest presetting and then resetting your boundaries often during this time. Boundaries have a funny way of slipping and shifting once we get into a routine. But the reality we live in is not predictable — it’s uncertain, and subject to change. That’s why it’s important for you to have a system in place to check in with yourself when you feel out of balance so you can get back into alignment with what you need, and reclaim those lunch hours, afternoon walks, and evenings without emails that are preventing you from burning out.

Pro tip

At the end of each week, I like to ask myself the Goldilocks questions: Did I do “too much,” “too little,” or did it feel “just right”? Then I look to the next week and adjust my meetings or to-do list based on what needs to change for me to get closer to that “just right” space. Checking in weekly allows me to adjust before too much time has passed and I’m totally burned out… or before I get down on myself for not getting as much done as I wanted to.

Embrace asynchronicity.

The average professional spends roughly 21.5 hours in meetings a week, and for many of us, that can get closer to 30. Thirty hours! When are we supposed to get our work done? Well that’s the magic question, and with 85% of global employees reporting they feel disengaged at work, we’ve got a real problem on our hands. But I’d argue this problem isn’t solely the responsibility of the employer to fix. We’re all feeding into the  overabundance of communication and over scheduling that leaves us feeling drained and unproductive.

As the workforce becomes more and more distributed, our communication and the way decisions are made must shift from synchronous and real time to asynchronous. This not only makes things easier for team members across the globe who work different hours, but it creates a more inclusive work environment. More voices, and more people who may not be comfortable speaking up in larger (or real-time) forums, are able to add to the conversation. It reduces the stress of feeling like, if you miss that one big meeting, you will be out of sync with your team or not get to be a part of a key decision; stress that often forces us to choose between our work and our families, friends, or other personal obligations.

Asynchronicity can be a tricky one when you’re new to the workforce. On the one hand, it can be helpful to feel like you can be onboarded and learn the ropes of a new job on your own schedule; on the other hand, it can be hard to get simple questions answered when you can’t just turn to a colleague and ask them.

As you’re getting up to speed on a new job, write down the questions you have for your manager or peers ahead of time and send them before your real-time meetings to make the most of your time together. This will allow your team members to answer you up front (or even send their answers in an email before the meeting) and free up more of your in-person time to focus on the meatier topics.

There are also small things you can do to increase your visibility and get to your team members asynchronously. You can greet your team members each morning when you sign in on Slack (or make it a habit every Monday of asking people about their weekends); you can make it a point to participate in ongoing group discussions; you can raise your hand to participate in employee resource groups or volunteer committees throughout the organization. All these little actions will keep you engaged with your coworkers and build community, even remotely.

Pro tip

For those of you who are feeling ambitious, you can also set new trends on your teams, like sending audio or video messages instead of email, allowing people to get to know you a little better and reducing those mixed messages we talked about around written communication. If there are creative ways you’ve used communication tools to keep in touch with friends across the globe, use them to your advantage and share them with your team as things to try.

Because of the speed in which it can happen and the boundaries it can cross, digital communication and remote work is here to stay. It’s about time we not only get used to it, but we thoughtfully design how to thrive in the space. Let your “beginner’s mindset” be a superpower to accelerate how your team and company navigate this new way of working. It’s on all of us to collectively build a better workplace culture, one where people feel more included and valued, and less pressure to be “always on.” Sounds like something we could all get used to, right?

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